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Putin Says Russia Emerging From Financial Crisis, Calls For Tough Action After Ethnic Violence

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Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin: "There has to be order."

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin: "There has to be order."

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has boasted about his government's achievements, saying Russians' quality of life is improving two years after the global financial crisis battered his country. He spoke during an annual live television question-and-answer call-in program in which he denounced jailed former tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky as a "thief."

Taking his seat in front of a studio audience, a relaxed-looking Putin said Russia's GDP had grown by almost 4 percent this year, which he said showed the country has put the worst of the financial crisis behind it. Putin reeled off an impressive list of economic and sociological statistics, saying Russians' quality of life is improving.

"Look, last year we had 6.02 million unemployed," he said. "This year, we cut unemployment by 1.2 million jobs, by bringing back old jobs and creating new ones. I can tell you that's a very good indicator."

The prime minister fielded questions from ordinary Russians at video links around the country in the highly stage-managed performance. The marathon program provides Putin a platform for burnishing his status as the country's supreme leader amid speculation he'll run for president again in 2012.

Putin speaks before a live studio audience in Moscow.

Analysts usually parse Putin's words for signs of policy-making and power struggles behind the closed doors of the country's authoritarian system.

Dominating speculation is the fate of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who's awaiting a verdict in a second trial on charges of embezzlement. Supporters of Russia's onetime richest man say he was arrested in 2003 for posing Putin a political threat.

Although Khodorkovsky is still waiting for a verdict, Putin said Khodorkovsky's crimes had been "proven in court," saying, "I believe that 'a thief should be in jail,'" which quotes a line from a popular Soviet-era film starring the bard Vladimir Vysotsky, which resonates among Russians.

The statements drew condemnation from Khodorkovsky's lawyers, who accused Putin of openly interfering in the court proceedings. On December 15, a judge postponed the reading of a verdict in the Khodorkovsky case until the end of the month. Khodorkovsky's supporters believe the new date was picked to minimize publicity for what they say is a modern version of a Soviet political show trial.

Putin's statement added to the expectation Khodorkovsky will receive close to the full possible sentence of 14 years, which prosecutors have asked to include time served. That would keep him in prison until 2017, though his supporters fear he could be kept in jail beyond then.

State Of Praise

This time, he lavished praise on the state for building housing, especially for people who lost homes during a series of fires that swept across Russia during a record drought last summer, something Putin today said was the country's worst development last year. The government was heavily criticized at the time for failing to combat the blazes and constructing flimsy new housing on the cheap.

But a video link from a village south of Moscow that had burned to the ground showed neat rows of tiny houses Putin praised for their modernity.

"Before, as a rule, such villages had nothing except a weak electricity line," he said. "Now there's gas, normal electricity, plumbing, sewage, more than a hundred television channels and broadband Internet."

'There Must Be Order'

Putin addressed a wave of nationalism sweeping the country after 5,000 soccer fans chanting racist slogans clashed with police and attacked natives of the southern Caucasus region near the Kremlin walls in central Moscow on December 11.

Human rights activists say the Kremlin has stoked nationalism in the past by backing nationalist groups and deporting Georgians.

But Putin said extremism was impermissible, and that Russia was a multiethnic and multiconfessional country. "There has to be order," he said.

In a typically barbed statement, Putin also praised the police for performing an "important task" by containing nationalist protesters.

"Otherwise, our liberal intelligentsia would have to shave off their beards, put on helmets, and go out themselves onto the square to fight the radicals," he said. "I think that would be the worst-case scenario because everyone has to have his own place."

In a newspaper interview published today, Putin accused the liberal opposition of helping encourage racist hooligans by holding unsanctioned rallies usually broken up by riot police.

Putin has marginalized political rivals by changing the make-up of parliament and cracking down on freer press and claims that opposition leaders want only "money and power," saying they stole billions of dollars as officials under former President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, colluding with Khodorkovky and other business oligarchs.

"We dragged them away from the feeding tough. But they want to come back and fill their pockets," Putin continued. "If we allow that, they won't limit themselves to billions. They'll sell all of Russia."

But Putin also admitted inefficient regional government is failing to tackle rampant crime plaguing the country. Answering a question about a criminal group that terrorized villagers in the southern Krasnodar region and killed 12 people, including four children, last month, he said that "the situation was awful."

"I believe that 'a thief should be in jail,'" Putin said of imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Despite such small concessions, Putin's aggressive performance -- coming shortly after a lackluster state of the nation address by his protégé President Dmitry Medvedev -- will reinforce the view of many Russians that their unapologetic "national leader" remains very firmly in power.

written by Gregory Feifer

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